0317 GMT October 24, 2020
Books will be written about 2020. They will say that this was the plague year; a time when our democracy was tested by bitter partisan and economic divisions. But the dark plot twist that arrived this week, a month away from the presidential election, may well be seen as almost too improbable: The president who downplayed the pandemic for so long and dismissed the importance of wearing masks, has come down with the disease. So have the first lady and several senior Republicans.
There has never been a president felled by a serious illness this close to an election. Pandemics don't care about partisan politics, but Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis shakes up the 2020 race in fundamental ways – and not only because he will presumably be unable to aggressively campaign down the stretch.
It's a karmic irony, given that the Trump campaign has deployed the politics of sickness in this campaign against Joe Biden as well as against Hillary Clinton in 2016, trying to stir rumors that the Democratic nominee was seriously ill and would be unable to discharge the duties of the office. Now, the shoe is uncomfortably on the other foot.
Four years to the day before the president's COVID-19 diagnosis, Trump was mocking Hillary Clinton's bout with pneumonia in front of a crowd, in full insult-comic pantomime. His campaign released ads featuring the former secretary of state coughing and stumbling after a 9/11 ceremony, with the narrator intoning "Hillary Clinton doesn't have the fortitude, strength, or stamina to lead in our world."
Her alleged ill health was the subject of countless memes and #HillaryHealth hashtags that fueled baseless conspiracy theories about her health (the hashtag was revealed in a 2019 indictment to be another dirty trick in the orbit of rogue Trump adviser and convicted felon, Roger Stone.)
The muscle memory endures. Team Trump has tried the same play in 2020 against Joe Biden. The two nominees are just three years apart in age, with Biden notably more fit and trim than President Trump. But Trump has been straining to raise questions about Biden's mental fitness in speeches, ads, social media memes and via surrogates.
Not coincidentally, we've learned via a Department of Homeland Security intelligence bulletin (withheld for two months) that the Russians are spreading the same kind of disinformation via social media – disinformation that Trump has even retweeted. They're singing from the same sheet music.
Having fought to lower expectations for Biden's ability to do the job, Team Trump found itself struggling to find alternative facts to account for Biden's strong performances to date. They started baselessly spinning about Biden taping his speech at the Democratic convention in advance. After all, Biden's focused and fiery speech did not comport with the sick narrative they'd set out.
Neither did his CNN town hall – always Biden's best format – after which the president of the United States accelerated speculation that his opponent was on performance enhancing drugs. Around the debate, during which the president – based on his proximity to infected White House officials – may well have been contagious, the Trump campaign veered into conspiracy theory land, falsely alleging that Biden was wearing an earpiece.
It's a desperate, despicable and now predictable tactic.
Let's not forget that the politics of sickness affects all American lives through health care, an ongoing concern that is ratcheted up during a pandemic. After all, the Trump administration is preparing to argue in front of the US Supreme Court – the week after the election – that the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is unconstitutional.
And 10 years after the passage of the landmark law, Trump and his fellow Republicans have still not put forward a comprehensive plan to replace the law with something else, despite near constant claims that Americans with preexisting conditions will be covered (they are already under Obamacare). If the law is killed, millions of people could be left without coverage during a pandemic, and any lingering effects of COVID-19 will likely be considered a preexisting condition. From a public policy perspective, that outcome would be truly sick.
But perhaps this week's news can allow the fever to finally break. Some Trump supporters will look high and low for any liberals online who bear ill wishes for the president's health, to provide pretext to fire back. But that does not change the fact that after President Trump's diagnosis, the Bidens wished the president a speedy recovery and Joe Biden's campaign announced that it would stop all negative ads out of respect for the president's condition. The Trump campaign, true to form, refused to do the same.
It's possible that Trump's illness will benefit him politically through an outpouring for sympathy directed at a man who does not often extend sympathy to others. But it is also possible that some of Trump's anti-mask fans and assorted COVID-denialists will take the president's hospitalization for COVID-19 as a wake-up call. The one-time reality TV star has run smack into scientific reality. Maybe this is what it will take to make his supporters take the virus seriously and literally.
There is a common, underlying condition beneath the politics of sickness and the politics of personal destruction. Both flow from the sickness of hyper-partisanship, which too often elevates cruelty and justifies lies, through a vision of politics as a version of civil war.
It's got to stop.
Illness should inspire compassion, a recognition that we are flawed and broken in different ways. Demonizing political difference is a virus that is deadly to democracy. It won't happen in the next 30 days or even the next 30 months, but we need to start healing from hyper-partisanship – and address its root causes – if we're going to see something resembling real healing in the American body politic.